This little writing corner is my favourite spot in my long skinny apartment. I call my place the “rat maze” because contrary to the trendy “open concept,” it’s a series of little nooks and crannies, all wonderfully compartmentalized for an introvert who loves to nest. Every room is it’s own little universe, full of soft things and hidey-holes and materials to nudge me into creativity because I often forget.
Look closer and you’ll see the books are obsessive-compulsively organized by genre and height. I’ve gone so far as to divide the comedy section into male and female authors, and improv comedy manuals; which is an oxymoron to such a high degree that I’m waiting for the books to spontaneously combust. Peppered ever so carefully around the books are little
toys curiosities I’ve accumulated in my travels, each one with it’s own significance. But the one that would light up my brain in an MRI like a group of ballerinas (ballerinas notoriously chain-smoke); the object that makes my heart ache because it’s a bittersweet reminder of “the one that got away,” is this guy.
Before I met Harry, I thought rats were disgusting vermin, a view shared by most of the other people on this planet. Rats were creatures to avoid; the bottom feeders of the animal kingdom. Calling someone a rat meant this person was filthy, untrustworthy, sinister. But Harry is a Neuroscientist, and spent most of his time studying rats because they are actually very similar to humans in terms of genetic, biological and behaviour characteristics. Harry loved his work, but hated studying rats, because they are wonderful. It pained him to keep them in small cages, inevitably having to sacrifice them for the test results. Aside from being super intelligent, they are adorable, silly, and extremely loving. While many a mouse bit Harry during his studies, rats were only ever happy to see him because they crave social interaction even more than treats. Even when the treats are actually DRUGS. It’s been scientifically proven!!
Harry and I started going to pet stores just so we could visit the rats. I was looking at them through Harry’s eyes now, and couldn’t believe how anybody could look at them and not squeal with delight. Those curious little faces with their glossy eyes and forests of whiskers and tiny little ears… Sometimes they would come up to the glass to say hi, but more often than not you could find them in a glorious pile under a miniature log cabin, the shape of which their bodies would maintain once removed. Rats LOVE to cuddle; a trait I share with them. At home wherever Harry was, I wanted to be near him if not fully integrated with him, our bodies molded together like play-dough. So I started affectionately calling him “Rat.” And it stuck. I loved that we had something nobody else had. He wasn’t my “babe” or my “honey;” he was my rat, soft “r.” The word took on this whole new meaning that only we understood.
When I moved to Montreal to pursue a Master’s degree in music, he stayed in Ottawa to continue his studies and I missed him terribly. While living together, we couldn’t get pet rats because it would have interfered with his work; but in Montreal, there was nothing stopping me! So I adopted Lucy and Taco, two female ratties from the SPCA. Having rats would help ease some of the pain from being apart.
Reunions in Montreal were extra special because we not only got to see each other, but Harry was able to interact with rats in a way he had only ever dreamed. It felt like we were a family, with weird little rat children. We would make them rattie castles out of cardboard boxes and egg cartons, and hard boil eggs so they could play rattie soccer; they would sit on our shoulders while we cooked (Ratatouille is real, guys!! Though they were more interested in eating the food than cooking it) and as they got older they mellowed out and cuddled in our laps while we watched movies. We created little rat voices for them, obviously, and would narrate for them when they’d find a new exciting hack to get even higher up in the apartment; or steal a cough-drop out of my pocket. It was pretty much just the voice of Consuela, the housekeeper from Family Guy. “No, noo. I take.”
As Lucy and Taco aged, Harry and I started to grow apart. We couldn’t help it. Of the 6 years we dated, 4 of them were long-distance and I was becoming a new person in Montreal, with new friends and habits and interests. Around the same time Harry was accepted to a post-doctoral position in Houston, Taco started to get sick. Harry spent his last summer before moving to Texas in Montreal with me, and we tried with all our might to nurse her, and our relationship back to health. I knew deep down that neither would survive the summer.
A part of us left with Taco when she passed away. These rats are what kept us together despite our distance and now with one of them gone, our hearts were starting to break. We tried long-distance for another month, but I just couldn’t stomach it. Another 3 years of this relationship purgatory, getting the worst of both worlds. No intimacy, and no freedom. I ended it. The day before he had an appointment to buy an engagement ring.
Thinking about it 4 years later as the woman I am today, a survivor of multiple soul-crushing romantic experiences, sends a wave of remorse crashing through my body. Why couldn’t we have just worked a little harder? Gone to therapy, chosen one city to live in, or even tried an open relationship. But I know realistically, none of that would have worked. I did what I felt was right in that stage of my life, and I have to respect that. I actually told him when we broke up that I wanted to know what it felt like to date a jerk. Like that’s some sort of essential female experience in our fucked up society. Boy does the Universe ever fucking DELIVER!
When I look at bookshelf rat, I’m reminded of what I once had. I’m grateful to have experienced what true love feels like so I’ll know when I’ve found it again. Next time though, I’m not letting it go.